Campaign flyer from Joe’s first Chapel Hill Town Council race, 1979

About Joe

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Chapel Hill, N.C., United States
Joe Herzenberg was born June 25, 1941, to Morris & Marjorie Herzenberg. His father owned the town pharmacy in Franklin, N.J., where Joe grew up. After he graduated from Yale University in 1964, Joe went to Mississippi to register voters for Freedom Summer. He joined the faculty of historically black Tougaloo College, where he was appointed chair of the history department. Joe arrived in Chapel Hill in 1969 to enroll as a graduate student in history at the University of North Carolina, and, along with his partner Lightning Brown, soon immersed himself in local, state, and national politics. Although Joe’s first campaign for the Chapel Hill Town Council in 1979 was unsuccessful, he was appointed to the Council to fill a vacant seat and served until 1981. In 1987, he was elected to the Council, becoming the former Confederacy's first openly gay elected official. Joe died surrounded by friends on October 28, 2007. He was 66 years old.

Tuesday, April 16, 2002

'Out and Elected': Gay people in public office - A Century Center exhibit features openly gay politicians

Chapel Hill Herald, April 16, 2002


CARRBORO - At any given time in the United States, there are roughly half-a-million elected officials, and a growing number are openly gay.

In "Out and Elected in the U.S.A.," a photo-text exhibit now on display at the Carrboro Century Center, photographer and documentarian R.S. Lee has captured what some are calling a new phase in American political history.

Black and white portraits of elected officials, accompanied by
excerpts from interviews conducted by Lee over the past four years, capture the experiences of 60 openly gay politicians in 30 states over the past 30 years.

At Sunday's opening, Lee said he set out to learn as much as he could by documenting the stories of out and elected officials in their own words - asking, Who are they? What don't we know about them? How did it happen?

Lee said he was drawn to these questions because when people who are "out" decide to run for office, "They hold themselves up to public scrutiny with the uncertainty of how the electorate would respond."

"It's difficult to be gay in our culture in many ways," Lee said. "We have a way of putting politicians on a pedestal and also throwing eggs at them."


Carrboro Mayor Mike Nelson was among several local politicians to attend the opening.

"I'm glad that these folks are being recognized for the work they did because they're pioneers in their own communities," Nelson said of the exhibit, in which he is one of the politicians featured.

"This last 25 years is really important because it was the first wave of openly gay and lesbian people in public office," he said.

By documenting this moment in American political history, "Ron has done a service to not just the lesbian and gay community, but the American community in general," Nelson said. "It's not unlike the first wave of African Americans being elected to office."


Former Chapel Hill Town Council member Joe Herzenberg, who is also featured in the exhibit, said that the exhibit showcases "a remarkably good bunch of people."

"To be gay or lesbian and open about it. I don't know how to explain this. But you have to be a bit better than the rest," Herzenberg said.

Herzenberg said that the public expects gay politicians to be beyond reproach, "even though we're not."

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